NU Online News Service, April 9, 2003, 11:26 a.m. EDT – Only 55% of U.S. businesses with fewer than 100 employees were offering health insurance in March, down from 61% in October 2002, according to a telephone survey of 766 business owners by International Communications Research Inc., Media, Pa.

But the researchers who conducted the survey, which was sponsored by American Express Company, New York, found signs that conditions for surviving small businesses might be starting to stabilize.

The percentage of owners who see opportunities for growth has fallen to 59%, from 64%. But only 57% are reporting cash-flow problems, down from 63% six months ago, and the percentage who say they plan to hire workers in the next six months has increased to 35%, from 26%.

Owners outside the Northeast and owners with at least 10 employees reported more interest in hiring than other owners, American Express says.

Researchers found that 74% of business owners use credit cards or charge cards to pay for business expenses, and that 15% report using credit or charge cards to handle cash-flow crunches.